“I need your FM voice.” My wife says I sound like the announcer on a classical music station. The problem is, Lien sounds like a Taiwanese woman speaking English, which she mostly learned as an adult. Siri mangles half of what she says, and it annoys her beyond depiction. My reaction would be to not speak to that wretched Apple faux person at all, but Lien expects that things should work as advertised. Her solution: she composes a message, recites it to me, and then holds her iPhone up to my face so I can repeat it in my dulcet tones. Pointing out to her that using the keyboard would be faster only exacerbates her annoyance. So I help her overcome one more twenty-first century, First World problem caused by the overreach of consumer technology. Which brings me to the Internet of Things.
An article by Paul Sawyers in VentureBeat last year reported on funding secured by San Francisco-based June, which is developing a Smart Oven. I won’t bore you with the feature set – instead, I’ll just ask: How much baking goes on in your household? Based on that, how much usage would you get from an Internet-connected gadget which inspected whatever you plopped in the oven, determined what you were cooking, and adjusted the temperature accordingly? Isn’t this why God created thermostats for regulating oven temperature, which recipes invariably stipulate? Perhaps someone smarter than me can explain the use case for this “solution.”
That Looked Better on Jeri Ryan
That oddity aside, there are a lot of incredibly valuable applications for placing passive RFID tags on newly manufactured products so they can self-report their presence. It simplifies everything from preventing inventory shrinkage to check-out (bar codes are so 20th century). So, do we want to use human-implanted RFID chips to authenticate identity? This is a thing, at least in small number. A recent article about RFID implants in Australia makes it seem like a silly fad, but the number of available applications for the technology is impressive. And as more phishing attacks expose more of our personal data, the allure of an identification that can’t be spoofed is undeniable.
Over the last few years, the IRS has detected a number of fraudulent tax returns submitted electronically, with W-2 forms apparently retrieved by providing minimal information, such as SSN and birth date. If you had an implant with a very long unique identifier that could be read by your phone or other device and validated by some central database, would you feel more or less secure? How about if it could be read by any pocket-sized harvester? Well, would you like your device to generate a complementary key based on your fingerprint that would combine with your RFID tag to uniquely identify you? At what level would you feel secure about being an internet “thing?”
Scenario: Imagine you are working in a hospital emergency room. An ambulance brought in a patient who is unresponsive. Fortunately, her RFID tag was read on the way in, and her records – from medical history to address, next of kin, and insurance coverage – have already been retrieved. But the other victim in the accident lost his arm, where the tag was implanted. He’s bleeding out, and you have to collect his identification the old-fashioned way in order to treat him. While this seems extreme, it’s not unrealistic. An embedded RFID tag might be the difference between life and death.
You Knew This Would Be About Ethics, Right?
As project managers, we’re going to be asked to manage a lot of projects that will be done because they are possible, or because they solve another twenty-first century, First World problem. We need to accept responsibility for being not just the agent of the sponsor but the agent and voice of society. We have to be prepared to point out flaws and even talk powerful people out of their pet projects. If someone had been the voice of reason in 1945, saying, “The war is almost over, and this nuclear Genie should be left in the bottle,” would the world be a safer place? On the other hand, we have a responsibility to support the development of technologies that can save lives, even if they seem a bit creepy to us.
Siri and Alexa are just the beginning. From autonomous vehicles to next-generation biometric authentication, we are changing the way humans interact with the world. You might never find yourself in a position to influence the future. But if you do, don’t hesitate to speak out. Don’t wait for the Law of Unintended Consequences to catch up with our innovations.